Robbie the Reindeer: Hooves of Fire (1999) | Animated and Underrated

I know this title wasn’t even a consideration for review until I just now re-watched it, but I had totally forgotten how fun this little animated special is.

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Robbie the Reindeer: Hooves of Fire is the first installment of a trilogy of half-hour Christmas television specials produced and animated by BBC One between 2001 and 2007. To the uninitiated, this short may look like it was animated by Aardman Entertainment, which is what I used to think. But it turns out that BBC One created this all in house, with the assistance of their partner, Comedy Relief (that’s the company’s name, not the term).

It’s the story of how Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer’s son gets sent off to the North Pole in order to carry on his father’s legacy as the sleigh team’s navigator. But upon arrival, Robbie isn’t the most fit or capable of the bunch, and the jealous and vengeful Blitzen, has it out for Robbie. And Blitzen goes about trying to find ways to either make Robbie leave, or to make him as lazy and unproductive as possible. Blitzen succeeds in convincing Robbie to leave on his own accord, and thinks that all might be well with the world. However, Robbie returns after some mishaps, and after training with an old wise-man atop a hill; to compete against Blitzen in order to prove to the big boss-man, Santa, who the best reindeer is.

Thankfully that brief description doesn’t even cover a third of the stuff that actually happens in this brisk half hour show.

What I find so amazing about Hooves of Fire is it’s ability to cram so much humor and so much story development into such a confined amount of time without making it feel too rushed. You get all of the information you could possibly need to understand what’s going on, to the point that it makes you feel like you’ve seen and heard more than you actually have. In a way, it makes the special feel longer than it is. And I think this is due to a few key reasons:

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For one, the characters are extremely well designed. The production team took great care to put their own spin on the world of the North Pole. Each Reindeer has their own distinct personality, size, and shape; two of the 9 reindeer are also female (Donner and Vixen). The elves have been suited up with furry-hooded parkas and snow-mobiles. One of the elves even wears steampunk goggles and a biker cap. And Santa, Mrs. Klaus, and the literal Santa Baby; all have big white beards and mustaches.

And since this was being made in 2000, they suited up old Saint Nick to have a modern hip-hop inspired sense of fashion, as well as a forward-thinking mentality by giving him a tricked out Sleigh Mark-2. This sort of thing has been done to death since the early 2000s, but I think I can safely say that this British special was one of the first to use that trope.

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Because of these distinctive designs, it allows each character to stick in your mind without them having to be on screen for very long. And just about every character supports the story in some fashion, so they all have their part to play.

The other interesting thing that helps this short stick in your mind, other than the chuckle-worthy British humor, is the soundtrack. My God is this a wonderful soundtrack. It’s almost shocking to think that a thirty minute TV special needs a soundtrack with songs that aren’t just background orchestration. In fact, we have five major songs here, two of which were written by the short’s composer, Mark Knopfler. There’s the (now cliché) “Chariots of Fire” theme from the movie of the same name; it’s only there for a gag, though, so don’t worry. Then there’s “Poison” by The Prodigy: a grunge/techno track used during another gag, but it totally sticks with you. And there’s also “Crazy” by Seal, which is actually a pretty cool song once it gets going; and even makes reference to “Fly Like an Eagle,” which Seal sang for the soundtrack of Space Jam.

Finally, there’s the star track, “Other Side of the Moon:” written by Mark Knopfler and performed by Jane Horrocks and Mikey Graham; as the theme song to this short.

This song is so damn catchy. It has a beautiful and uplifting dance-beat opening… that then transitions into a soft rock ballad with a few light guitar riffs here and there. The base harmony that provides the song’s chorus, or perhaps rather its backup vocals; is one of those sounds that I have heard in my head for so long that it will be there for the rest of my life. You actually hear the distinct “doo-wee-ooh” sound clip during the opening transition into the main menu screen of the DVD. So every time I ever popped in the DVD, there it was whistling in my ears. I love this song so much I wish I could buy the whole song on I-Tunes. Unfortunately a proper soundtrack doesn’t seem to have been made. You can, however, buy the other three tracks I mentioned; as BBC was given permission by those artist’s record companies to use them in the short. I would highly suggest you check out “Crazy.”

To speak on the animation for a bit, there is a small documentary on the DVD where you can see how the short was produced. And it’s quite a fascinating process each time I see it, either in Aardman’s films or Henry Selick’s. The reindeer’s bodies are made from plasticine and rubber parts in order to retain the form of their figures, whereas the mouths are all made from small bits of clay to allow for slightly more flexibility in shaping dialogue. The head is also interchangeable in many instances.

The bodies of all of the characters, as well as most props and set dressings, have a unique paint job that gives it a gritty and rusty edge: sort of like an aged wine barrel, or perhaps the outside texture of an almond. Much more subdued colors and browner shades as well.

As one should readily expect from such a production as this; the charm of this special comes mostly through the voice-acting. Interestingly, though, this special was given two dubs: one in Britain during its original 2001 broadcast, and one from CBS, during its 2002 and 2003 US broadcast.

Speaking strictly of the British dub, we have Robbie the Reindeer, played by Ardal O’Hanlon; who you may know as Brannigan the cat-man from the Doctor Who episode, “Gridlocked.”

Then there’s the great Steve Coogan as the antagonistic Blitson; who you may know from things like Night at the Museum, Disney’s Around the World in 80 Days, Philomena, and Alan Partridge.

There’s also Jane Horrocks; who not only played Robbie’s (2nd) love-interest, Donner, but also sang the theme song, “Other Side of the Moon.” The other recognizable role I could see from her was her role as Fairy Mary in all 5 Tinker Bell movies.

 

And then there’s an interesting appearance by Rhys Ifans as the Head-Elf with those steampunk goggles I mentioned. You may know Rhys from The Amazing Spiderman as Dr. Curt Connors, he also played James Hook in the mini-series Neverland; and was Nemo Nobody’s father in the independent Sci-fi epic, Mr. Nobody. A rather understated character he ends up playing here in this short.

 

The rest of the cast fills out with your typical selection of varied British talent; who I have to say prove to sound better than background characters and extras you may find in a lot of US productions. UK actors with accents ranging from your Norfolks to your Cornwalls, and your Cardiffs to your Dublins, allow for a much broader range of characters not just in appearance but in their voice. And with these accents comes a lot of regional humor and forms of speech that allow for certain gags and jokes to work (especially when it comes to certain regional terms) that would not work without the accents. Whereas in the US, most of the people that you hear in film and voice overs that are popular actors don’t have much of an accent outside of maybe a tinge of New English. Most of the time, though, US actor’s voices will vary in how they personally speak with their cadence, their pitch, the way that their vocal chamber is shaped, and whether or not they speak with an impediment either in the tongue or on the lips (which is where you get the two kinds of lisps).

Sorry for the detour, but this then leads me into my thoughts on the US dub of Hooves of Fire. And I’ll preface this by saying that “If you wish to leave now, that’s perfectly fine. The rest of this review is only on the comparisons between the US and UK dubs of this film, and it gets rather lengthy and in-depth. So I won’t be disappointed if you decide to skip to the bottom to read my closing thoughts.” And now, without further adeu…

HOLY CRAP, was this US dub terrible! Just… so…much…wrong.

Before I say anything else, I’d like to say that I know… without a doubt that this cast can do so much better than this.

Conducted and re-distributed in 2002 by CBS; the US cast consists of Ben Stiller as Robbie, his dad Jerry Stiller as Old Jingle, Jim Belushi as Santa Klaus, Hugh Grant as Blitzen, and Britney Spears as Donner. And I honestly thought the US re-dub was going to be better than this due to these actors’ work in later animated roles. Jim Belushi and Brad Garret, for instance, have gotten a lot of work as voice-over actors in different projects here and there; and Ben Stiller has done a good job in the Madagascar movies. But unfortunately, their natural talents do not come through here.

I would say, after thinking it over, that there are four key areas where this American dub fails, and in which the original UK dub succeed. And I have a feeling that these issues have more to do with the Voice-Over Director than they do the cast.

Number One: Sincerity and Volume

When performing voice over, it is paramount that you are honest and sincere with your line readings. It’s just like any other form of acting. You have to take in your character’s personality, their energy and emotions, and project them through yourself: believe that you are that character. When you do this, your character’s enthusiasm, anger, sadness, or disinterest should show in your voice; and it’s very easy to tell when an actor isn’t putting their all into it. The biggest tell-tale sign for me was that whenever Robbie was supposed to be excited or joyful, Ben Stiller held back and just sort of gave a breathy “yeah,” “whoo-hoo,” or “awesome.” But it sure doesn’t sound like it’s awesome. The same thing goes for Britney Spears and Jerry Stiller who play Donner and Old Jingle respectively: at every point in the film where I knew their performance should have been more enthusiastic, it sounded dull and incredibly flat.

When you’re excited, you’re supposed to naturally push on your diaphragm and project more sound, effectively raising your volume and making you sound super pumped. I can’t even believe I have to explain how that works, but if you listened to this US dub after knowing the UK version by heart, you’d probably die a little inside. Lol

Something else I noticed is that just like with being excited, whenever Robbie was having trouble, or was angry, or was in pain; Ben would also drop the ball. There’s one scene in particular where Robbie is trying to work on a baby doll assembly line in the Elf’s workshop, and he gets stuck on the conveyer belt and gets packed into a doll box. And then when one of the Elves goes to press the “Try Me” button on the package, he presses Robbie in the nose, and Robbie screams like he’s getting poked in the nuts. Now when Ardal O’Hanlon played Robbie, his reaction was hilarious; but when Ben Stiller did it, he just goes “ow:” like he just stepped on a crumb or something.

It’s sort of like when I try to do my voice-overs at home in the middle of the day, and I try not to disturb my family, while at the same time trying to scream so that I can record some excited reactions. It just ends up sounding fake and lousy.

Number Two: Local Vernacular

I sort of already covered this issue, but that was before I actually heard the US dub and realized how true it was. English vernaculars across the British Isles have dozens of variations on pronunciation as well as native traditional vocabulary and terminology. There are many regional sayings and phrases that will often show up in British movie and television scripts if the writers include characters from specific regions, or if actors from those regions decide to ad-lib a line or two. It gives the dialogue flavor and a little extra pizzazz, which allows the script to avoid being dull. And I’ll tell you what, it didn’t take me long to realize just how important regional dialects were to films like this, once I heard what lines CBS attempted to Americanize.

Just like how I explained with “sincerity;” depending on where an actor comes from, their regional dialect and native phrases are going to sound more honest coming from them than coming from anyone else. So if someone from America tries to read dialogue written for a character from Glasgow, in a Middle-American accent; it’s going to sound terrible. The same thing is true if you try to replace native UK phrasing and terminology with an American equivalent: it just won’t hold the same expression or the same emotion in most cases.

For instance, at one point Robbie is given a cheeseburger and large fries from Blitzen. In the UK version, Robbie says “Cheers, Blitzen. Yer a pal.” But in the US dub, he says, “Thanks Blitzen. What a pal.” It might not sound like a huge difference, but it’s all in the delivery of those lines that makes it not come across the same way. A better example would be when Santa tells Robbie “You’re a good deer, just like your dad.” Now Jim Belushi does say the exact same line; except that when British actor Ricky Tomlinson said it, it was a minor joke on the word “deer” also meaning “dear.” So it was a little more of an affectionate and figurative reading rather than literal. You’ll tend to find that certain regions of both the UK and certain Southern States will have people use the word “dear” when referring or speaking to complete strangers.

I think the worst offence in this regard is with Dez Yeti and Alan Snowman, the two news-castors covering the climactic Reindeer Games (who I assume are parodies of actual British commentators). With these guys, their native UK accents gave Dez dry wit and Alan a bit of a Scottish flare. Sure, some people probably wouldn’t be able to pick up on what Alan Snowman was saying half the time, but that’s not the point. The point is that what they were saying and how they were saying it reflected their characters reactions to the events of the story in a natural and more spontaneous way. But once they were dubbed over by American actors, their native phrases were replaced by lousy counterparts, and the particular way that they delivered their lines just took all of the fun and humor out of these two quirky characters.

Number Three: Timing

Perhaps the biggest issue of all that I had with this dub was the timing, because it managed to screw everything up; especially when coupled with insincere line readings.

If you watch any movie, any more at all, and it has amazing acting in it; you are definitely going to care about what’s going on, and you’re going to catch everything. Next to nothing will go over your head. But if you watch that same movie dubbed over by people that sound like they don’t know what they’re doing, you will no longer care, and you will miss everything.

I actually can’t believe how much I didn’t care about these characters, or what was going on, while watching the US dub; because nearly every line had poor pacing. And because of the lack of sincerity in the performances, my brain could not register what was going on and how relationships between the characters were building, even though I knew exactly what was going on.

Now it’s true that every actor did match their dialogue with the characters’ mouth-shapes. But even then, somehow, the pacing of each line was out of whack. Certain inflections were gone, characters who tended to speak fast were now (somehow) speaking slower, and way too many characters almost talk over each other because they didn’t do enough takes to tweak the length. Some lines even went past a cut and into the next shot because the VA director probably didn’t ask the actors to try it few more times. And again, I know these actors are better than this; but it just seems like the Voice Director seriously had no idea what he or she was doing with this project or this material, and just sort of sped through the recording sessions so that CBS wouldn’t have to pay these actors as much for the work.

Number Four: Editing and Sound Design

And the icing on this fruit-cake of a mess is most definitely the lack of audio mixing. There was absolutely no care taken to actually edit these recordings so that they blended into the scene. In the original soundtrack, dialogue is edited to sound muffled, distant, indoors, outdoors, in a room with a reverb, or outside with an echo: allowing every voice to sound like it’s actually there in that space reacting to the environment. But in the CBS re-dub, absolutely none of that happens. The sound is just left as-is, at the same level and the same EQ throughout the entire film. And it completely takes me out of the experience at every turn.

But thankfully, despite all of that, no one has to listen to this waste of a dub if they don’t wish to. =)

To wrap things up, I would highly recommend Robbie the Reindeer: Hooves of Fire, and hopefully its sequels as well (but ONLY in its original, British Dub); to anyone who loves Wallace and Grommit, anyone who loves stop-motion, and anyone who loves British comedy. It is well worth your time and money.

A charming little animated short for anyone’s collection.

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